Photo Credit Jan Garrison
Adjusting your attitude can mean a lot
October 5, 2016

Editor’s Note: This is Head of Schools Dr. Jim Power’s speech at the all-school meeting over Parents Weekend.

Monday night, as you may know, over 84 million people watched the first presidential debate of the season, making it one of the most widely viewed programs in television history. No matter what our political leanings, we seem to be intrigued by politics and by politicians. A few years ago, I could tell my own son, who was 12 at the time, had been spending way too much time with Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper because, one morning when I asked him if he’d made his bed, he paused for a moment before saying, “Dad, I’m not here to talk about the past. I want to focus on the future.”

Because Culver places such strong emphasis on leadership, this afternoon I’m going to suggest that there may be things we can learn about politics and political leaders and about ourselves by considering what author Malcolm Gladwell calls “the four boxes” of life.

Box One is called the box of true advantage. For example, you happen to have been born into a loving family that really values education.  As a result, your folks are able to send you to Culver, where you get to spend time with Dean Rasch, Captain Neller, and me.  Talk about advantage. Lucky, lucky you!

Box Two is the advantage that turns out to be a disadvantage. In this case you may be in an extraordinarily wealthy family, but you are so indulged that you never develop a work ethic and end up leading a life of hedonistic purposelessness. I’m told that the two scariest words for affluent parents are “Paris Hilton.” And you may have read about the 16 year-old Texas boy who was convicted of killing four people in a drunk driving incident but was given a suspended sentence because the judge saw him as a victim of something called “affluenza.” Egad.

Box Three is the box of disadvantage that is just that. You are poor and receive an inadequate education, which seriously handicaps you for the rest of your life. We’d all love to change that box.

This is the box of disadvantage that turns out to be an advantage.

The most intriguing box, though, is the fourth box, and it is the one where we often find some of our most successful political leaders. This is the box of disadvantage that turns out to be an advantage. Can you think of anything in your own life that appears to be a disadvantage but may actually turn out to be an asset?

(Those of you study “The Odyssey” with Mr. Trevathan may know that the entire Homeric tradition is based on this premise.)

I can think of two examples from my own less than Homeric existence. First, during the summer before my sophomore year, I broke my thumb playing baseball. Because I was going stir crazy, my mom, in an attempt to get me out of the house (and perhaps out of myself), signed me up for a typing course. When school started that September, the editor of the school paper, a guy who couldn’t type, discovered that I could, and as a result, he made me the copy editor. That opportunity sparked an interest in both news and in writing that has enriched my life.

A second example is a bit more personal, so forgive me if I go Dr. Phil on you for a minute: My dad was an alcoholic, and because of this, I have attended quite a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. AA is built on 12 steps and slogans, one of which is “one day at a time.”

The thinking behind this is simple: Alcoholics never get cured. They always have a compulsion, the almost insatiable desire to pick up a drink. Since the idea of never ever having a drink again can be overwhelming, AA focuses on staying sober “just for today.” The AA insight is that, in almost any situation, all you need to do is figure out what you can do, and just do it for the next 24 hours. Just for today — just take care of today, one day at a time.

It’s worth noting that the fourth box has had a profound impact on some inspirational political figures.

It’s worth noting that the fourth box has had a profound impact on some inspirational political figures. Lincoln went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and endured the death of his two sons. FDR got polio and spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair. Bill Clinton’s father was killed in a car crash before he was born, and the future president was later raised by an alcoholic stepfather who was physically and emotionally abusive.

These are not isolated incidents; there may actually be something akin to a cause/effect relationship with some fourth boxes. Think for a minute about President Obama’s fourth box: he was a bi-racial boy, abandoned by his father. Not exactly what most of us would consider a familiar recipe for success.  But what does he do? He writes a bestselling book about the search for his father, (You could consider President Obama a modern day Telemachus.) and in the process, he gets himself elected president. Not bad for a student who had to live with his grandparents, while he attended Punahou School on financial assistance. All of this happened because of his extraordinary mom and because of his ability to take disadvantage and make it an advantage.

I mention this today, because as you start a new marking period, you may soon find yourself staring at your own fourth box. If you find yourself discouraged when you see a test score, or if you are occasionally overwhelmed by your work load, I would encourage you to take a deep breath. Do not panic. Do not give in to anxiety. That “one day at a time” philosophy that has helped addicts and alcoholics stay sober can help the rest of us live more manageable, and at times even serene lives!

So my take-away for today is this: The next time you encounter some hardship, something that appears intimidating or insurmountable, ask yourself one question: Is this Box 3 or Box 4? The answer may depend on your attitude and your willingness to persevere. Remember that “perseverance is the hard work you do, after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” Choosing your attitude is a little thing, but it is one that can mean a lot.

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Posted in Culver Academies Leadership Parents
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